Storytelling Through Photography

Creating a set of images that tell a story

My September 2021 online photography talk was held recently, the subject this time Storytelling Through Photography. This is the art of creating a set of images that tell a story about an event, a place or a person, something that is very different from simply shooting high quality stand-alone images. When telling a story, the images must work together as a team, with no single image dominating the others and distracting attention away from the aim of the story.

The talk is now available on You Tube, and so can be watched here. Just click on the image below to launch the video.

The essentials of building a photographic story

The talk runs through a series of tips about how to go about storytelling through photography. These can be summarised as follows:

  • The aim is to create a set of photos that work together as a ‘team’, building the story and without any single photo dominating the collection;
  • Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Without these, it is just a collection of uncoordinated images;
  • The beginning should consist of a couple of images that set the scene – the type of environment or general location for instance;
  • The end should again consist of a couple of images that round off the story, giving a summary of what transpired or the end-result of whatever process is described in the story;
  • The middle is the main meat of the story and is the longest section, consisting of a string of images that describe the heart of the story, such as what is happening, arranged in a sequence that a viewer can follow;
  • Production of technical perfection and spectacular stand-out images is secondary: telling the story is paramount. Things often happen so quickly and unexpectedly in a story-telling situation that perfection has to take a back seat. However, if there is time to craft perfect images then so much the better;
  • Report and record what you see impartially – leave any preconceptions or prejudices behind and photograph what you actually see, not what you think you ought to see or what you would like to see. If you want to put a particular slant on a story, do this at the post-photography image editing phase, not during the actual photography.
Storytelling through photography: Philippine crocodile

Examples of storytelling through photography

To illustrate the process of storytelling through photography, the talk uses images from two of Nigel’s own stories: conservation work with the Philippine Crocodile and reindeer herding in Lapland, in the far north of Sweden. These can be summarised as follows:

1. Conservation work with the Philippine Crocodile: This is the world’s most endangererd crocodile, and the photography in this story illustrated the work of the Mabuwaya Foundation in rearing infant crocodiles in captivity and then releasing them back into the wild once they were large enough to fend off predators.

The photography started with a couple of images that set the scene, one showing the forest and lake habitat, another the team of workers involved. The main part of the story then illustrated the work in catching captively reared crocodiles, taking their vital statistics, transporting them into a nearby national park, and then releasing them into a lake. The final images rounded off the story by showing a crocodile being released and then swimming as a free, wild crocodile in the lake.

Storytelling through photography: Philippine crocodile

2. Reindeer herding in Lapland: Every autumn the Sami people in the far north of Sweden round up their reindeer from the mountains, bring them down to lower winter pastures, and temporarily corral them in order to mark out ownership of newborn deer and to kill some of the older males for winter meat.

The photography in this story illustrated the corralling process and the capturing of both young deer and mature males. The story begins with a couple of images that introduce the environment, showing the wild mountains where the reindeer spend the summer, photographed from a helicopter just as the first winter snows arrived. The images of the main story showed thousands of corralled reindeer, with the Sami people picking out and lassooing newborn animals and mature males. The story rounds off with a summary of the family nature of this process, with a picnic once the work is done, including the presence of the family’s pet albino reindeer.

Storytelling through photography: Reindeer herding

The importance of storytelling through photography

Most photographic tuition available in one form or another concentrates on teaching people how to create fantastic single standalone images, but don’t look at the storytelling process at all. This is a shame, since throughout its history telling stories has been one of the most important roles of photography. It is a skill worth cultivating. Hopefully, the tips in this talk will help give you some ideas about how to go about storytelling through photography.

Storytelling through photography: Reindeer herding

The next talk

The next online photography talk will be about macro photography, and will be held on Wednesday 20th October at 8pm (BST). It’s free to join, just click on the link below to fill in and submit the form. This will enable me to send you the link.

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People Photography: capturing the life around us

Nigel’s June 2021 online photography talk

My June 2021 talk, called People Photography: capturing the life around us, has just been held, and now you can see the recording here. Although it’s true that I’m generally not recognised as a people photographer, in actual fact my travel and tourism work has entailed quite extensive work with people in a host of situations.

Little of my photography covers the classic posed studio portraiture so often associated with the term ‘people photography’. Instead, my photography covers people in their environment, often photographed doing what they do in their daily life. As such, this photography fits more into the genres of environmental portrait photography, street photography or documentary/journalistic photography.

So this talk covers many of the techniques I use in carrying out such people photography, and to watch it here just click on the image below to launch the You Tube file.

Thinking ahead: deciding on the kind of approach

Even before starting a shoot, it is important to have a plan for kind of photography you’re intending to do:

  • Will it be staged, posed photography, or rather more fluid, spontaneous shots of someone in action?
  • Do you intend to shoot portraiture concentrating on the subject’s face, with them looking at the camera? Or should the subject more or less ignore you, carrying on with work, for example, while you photograph what they do?
  • What kind of lenses should you use? Your decisions about the previous point will probably affect the type(s) of lens you choose to use: telephoto to concentrate on someone’s face, soften features and blur out the background. Or a wide-angle lens to increase depth of field and to make it possible to show a subject’s environment and their activity as well as their face.
  • What kind of light to use? More often than not, this kind of people photography uses only natural light, but its angle and intensity can have a big influence on the results of the photography. Flash is very rarely used as the main light source, its role (when used at all) mainly for fill-in, removing shadows created by awkward ambient light, for example. The use of fill-in flash can also make it possible to use a much slower shutter speed than would otherwise be possible, an important consideration when having to shoot with the camera hand-held.
People Photography: Capturing the life around us

Getting the light right

As already mentioned, the angle and intensity of the light can have a big impact on the resulting photos. Bright sunlight straight into or side-on to the face can give strong, saturated colours, but it will also put deep shadows and harsh highlights across the face. For example, deep-set eyes may be lost in shadow, a prominent nose will put a shadow across the face, a strong jaw will leave the entire neck in shadow, and may also result in bright highlights above the jaw. Such lighting is often acceptable if you’re trying to emphasise the ‘strength of character’ in a face, but it is rarely flattering.

A much more attractive result can be achieved by having soft, even light across the face. This will result in no dark shadows or harsh highlights, a softening of features and improvements to the appearance of skin. To achieve this, photography on a bright cloudy day is often a good solution, or if shooting on a sunny day have your subject in the shade or indoors.

An alternative approach is to shoot into the sunlight, with the sun shining from behind the subject. You generally need to use a telephoto lens for this to work, and to make sure the sun is not in the image frame. This approach ensures that the face is lit by flat even light, while the sunlight coming from behind lights up the hair beautiful. This is particularly effective on someone with blond hair. However, because the face is effectively in shadow it may come out in the photos a little dark. To overcome this, either use a reflector to bounce light back into their face, or a little fill-in flash, or simply over-expose the image a little.

People Photography: Capturing the life around us

Looking down, looking up

One of the biggest problems I often encounter when photographing people as they go about some activity is that they will almost inevitably be looking down a lot of the time, as they concentrate on their work.

In all people photography it is important to focus on the subject’s eyes, since that is what we, as humans, are hard-wired to look at when we see a face. Focussing on a subject’s eyes can be difficult when they are looking down. They certainly won’t be looking towards the camera, and sometimes it may even appear as though their eyes are closed, only the eyelids visible.

To overcome this you can try a number of potential solutions. If you’re photographing face-on to the subject, try moving so that you’re shooting side-on. Alternatively, try putting the camera lower, so you’re looking up into their face. If these don’t work, then often the only solution is to ask the subject to stop what they’re doing, hold a pose and look up into the camera for a few seconds.

With a cooperative subject this can work wonders, and create images where there is plenty of eye contact between the subject and the viewer. However, with a nervous subject it can cause them to freeze in a very tense posture, something that will be very visible in the photos.

People photography: capturing the life around us

Specialised people photos

Most of the time I photograph people in a way that shows them off quite clearly; well composed and lit to show up both the person and their activity. There are occasions, however, when I deliberately photograph in a slightly more abstract way: a silhouette is perhaps the most obvious example, but another that I commonly use is blurred motion. In this latter type of image part of, or sometimes even the whole person is blurred as they move about. The intention is to put over the sense of movement and energy, rather than to freeze an otherwise dynamic situation into something quite static. The subject of blurred motion photography is the topic for the July 2021 talk, to be held live online on 28th July at 8pm.

And finally…..

I hope you enjoy watching the video of my talk People Photography: capturing the life around us, and reading its summary here. If you have any queries or comments just get in touch. And if you’d like to join a future talk live, just click on the link below to register to be sent the talk’s link. All talks are held once a month, on a Wednesday evening at 8pm (BST).

People photography: capturing the life around us

See more

You can find out more about outdoor portrait photography in the blog that I wrote recently for Ripe Photography Insurance.

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Focus: the third critical component in successful photography

An online photography talk about the critical role of good focussing in great photography

Focus: the third critical component in successful photography was the subject of my first online photography talk of 2021. I have called it the third critical component because focus forms a holy trinity with composition and lighting. All three must come together for any photograph to have a chance of being successful, dare I say even great. If any one of these three elements is substandard in any photo then that image will be a failure.

Watch this talk here

This talk was recorded, and so you can watch it here now. Just click on the embedded link below. The talk is 40 minutes long, and I really hope you enjoy it.

What does this talk contain?

It may seem blindingly obvious, of course, to say that the main subject of a photo needs to be sharply in focus for that photo to be a success. However, correct focussing goes well beyond just this limited definition.

There are many other issues to consider, such as:

  • Does the entire image need to be sharp, not just the main subject, as is often the case with landscape photography?
  • Or would it be better, for example, to have the background blurred, enabling the sharply in-focus subject to ‘pop out’ of the picture, such as is common in portrait or wildlife photography?
  • Perhaps you need to have just one small part of the photo sharp (containing the main subject) and everything else blurred, ensuring that attention is directed just to this area of the frame;
  • What about blurred motion as the main subject? Does this need to be sharply in-focus even though it is blurred anyway as a result of movement?
Focus: the third critical component

Techniques and technologies

What all the above points cover is the subject of depth of field, and the need to control this in order to control just how much of any photo is sharp.

Depth of field is the amount of an image that is in focus from its nearest point (to the photographer) to its furthest point. This can be varied in a number of ways, primarily:

  • A wide-angle lens naturally has a bigger depth of field than a telephoto lens;
  • A narrow lens aperture (ie a high f-number, eg f/16) creates a bigger depth of field than a wide open aperture (ie a low f-number, eg f/5.6).

So, if you use a wide-angle lens shut down to a narrow aperture you will have a big depth of field, potentially ranging from shortly in front of the camera all the way to the horizon. This is commonly used in landscape photography, though also in other photographic genres.

On the other hand, if you use a telephoto lens with a wide-open aperture you will have a very small depth of field, perhaps a metre or less. This is a technique commonly used in portrait and wildlife photography to ensure the face really ‘pops out’ from its background and commands the viewer’s attention.

As the subject-to-camera distance decreases, perhaps once it is less than about 10 metres, then the depth of field starts to decrease for any lens and any lens aperture. Finally, when you get down to macro photography, such as of butterflies, the depth of field even at a very narrow lens aperture is quite tiny, usually no more than about 1 cm or thereabouts.

Focus: the third critical component

Further content

During the talk I show a range of images that illustrate the above points about depth of field. The final third of my talk covers some practical examples, in which I have deliberately taken sets of photos at different lens apertures and focussing distances, to illustrate how changing these, along with lens focal-lengths, can have a dramatic impact on the type of image that results.

The final section looks at the problems of macro photography and the tiny depth of field available here. In particular I introduce the technique of focus-stacking: taking a series shots focussed at different points, and then blending them together in the computer post-photography.

Overall, the talk gives a tour of the techniques and skills of good focussing, taking it well beyond the simple process of just getting the subject sharp. Instead, the aim should be to control the depth of field in an image through appropriate use of lens focal length and aperture to produce an image that works for the particular subject and its surroundings.

Focus: the third critical component

Find out more about my talks

I hope you enjoy watching this talk. If you’d like to find out more about my talks click on the links below, where you’ll be able to watch recordings of earlier talks, and sign up for some of my upcoming talks.

Each of my talks takes place on a Wednesday evening, once a month, and are free to attend.

I’ll look forward to seeing you online.

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Light in Photography

The critical role of light in creating great photography

The role of light in photography.

My November 2020 photography talk (which went ahead online on 11th November) explored the critical role of light in photography. It may seem blindingly obvious that light is an essential ingredient in any kind of photography. However, the essential point is not light per se, but the type and quality of the light used, coupled most importantly with how the photographer makes use of that light.

A recording of this talk is now online, and you can watch it by clicking on the embedded link further down this page.

An exploration of the type and quality of light in photography

In this talk I initially introduce the very nature of light, as a part of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. I then cover some terminology used in the technical description of light, including the colour temperature scale and how this is expressed in our daily lives in terms of types of light sources encountered.

The main part of the talk covers an exploration of what is meant by the type and quality of light, specifically as it applies to natural light. This ranges from consideration of the angle of the light, relative to both the subject and the photographer, resulting in three basic angles: front lighting, side lighting and back-lighting (which may or may not result in your subject being a silhouette).

These angles are then of course further influenced by the sun’s height in the sky, something that impacts on the length and strength of shadows, and the colour temperature of the light delivered.

For the latter, this results in white light during sunshine in the middle of the day, but very warm light, rich in red, shortly after sunrise or before sunset, with cold blue-rich light in shadows and at dawn and dusk.

Sunrise on Mte Fitzroy, Patagonia, Argentina. The role of light in photography.

The talk also explores the role of flat, sunless light, in which the lack of shadows and highlights is helpful in photography of such subjects as details, woodlands and people.

Throughout the talk, I use my own photography to illustrate my main points, showcasing the critical role of natural light in photography, and most especially in the creation of great photography.

Watch the recorded talk here

To watch this talk click on the embedded link below.

Naturally, I really hope you like this talk.

Light and my programme of photography talks

This talk covering the role of light in photography forms just one part of my programme of photography talks, following on from my ealier talks Goals in Photography and Photographic Composition: the critical base of all great imagery.

The programme continues, the next talk being Stunning Landscape Photography, which will be live online at 8pm on 9th December. The talks will continue in the New Year with a further programme which will be published shortly.

To find out more about my talks and to register for the 9th December talk, click on the link below.

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Goals in Photography

The first talk in Nigel’s new series of online photography talks

I held the first of my new online photography talks on 23rd September, the inauguration of a planned ongoing series of free talks that anyone can attend. This first talk, entitled Goals in Photography, saw me explore some of the photography I’ve done during my lengthy career as a professional photographer. Images shown included some of my personal favourites, as well as images that have marked important points in my career, and/or illustrated and explained some of the goals that I constantly strive to achieve with my photography.

Mt Everest, one image in Nigel Hicks's Goals in Photography talk.
Mt Everest seen from the North Face Base Camp; Tibet, China.

Watch a video of the talk now

The talk was recorded and can now be watched on both You Tube and right here, lasting about 34 minutes.

To watch the talk just click on the link below:

Naturally, I really hope you will enjoy the talk. Feel free to leave any comments or queries in the comments section of this blog. I’ll do my best to answer anything you’d like to ask.

Young boy with bubble gum and toy guny, one image in Nigel Hicks's Goals in Photography talk.

Programme of upcoming talks

This Goals in Photography talk was hugely successful, with about 40 people taking part. There will now be three more talks before Christmas, which will be:

14th October – Composition

11th November – Light

9th December – Landscape photography

All the talks will be free to attend. All I ask is that you register in advance so that I know to send you the link to enable you to join.

To find out more and to register for any or all of the talks click on the button below.

Golden Snub-nosed monkey, one image in Nigel Hicks's Goals in Photography talk.
Golden snub-nosed monkey.

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